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Before Command Sergeant Major Christopher Kepner ever coined a Soldier for a job well done, he took the first coin he ever had made and put it in his pocket. Kepner, now command sergeant major of the Army National Guard, carried that coin with him wherever he went to remind himself that his most important job was taking care of his Soldiers.
As infantry battalion command sergeant major with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division on deployment in Iraq, Kepner was responsible for enforcing the regulations regarding proper protective gear, and it was a role he took very seriously. Knee pads, elbow pads, eye pro—if Kepner was around, you’d better be wearing them the right way, or he would make sure you did. How diligent was Kepner on the matter? So much so that his platoon sergeant once told him his troops had a running joke in which they would dare each other to walk past Kepner with their uniform screwed up.
“They would all talk smack about it, but none of them would ever do it,” Kepner says.
One day in 2009, a grenade blew up in a Soldier’s face. He suffered broken facial bones and blindness in one eye. But he could still see out of the other, and the belief was that it was because he was wearing his eye protection at the time. As bad as the injuries were, they would have been worse if he hadn’t followed the regs.
When the Soldier woke up after surgery in a Baghdad hospital, Kepner was at his bedside. “I didn’t let you down, Sergeant Major,” the Soldier said. “I had my eye pro on.”
Even after the horror he had experienced, he wanted to make sure Kepner knew he had listened to him.
Kepner reached into his pocket and pulled out his coin—that first coin, the one he carried with him everywhere as a constant reminder to take care of his Soldiers. He explained its significance to the injured Soldier, and before he left, he placed the coin on the man’s bed.
Seven years later, Kepner still gets emotional describing that moment—the most unforgettable coining of his career—because it gets to the essence of his calling. “If you sum up the role of the noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army,” he says, it’s that the NCO “is obligated to keep Soldiers safe. We do that by enforcing standards.”
Kepner says he tried to stay composed as he left the room. “But if that doesn’t reinforce that what we do as [NCOs] is right and has purpose and can be a matter of life and death, nothing will,” he says.
He never saw that Soldier again, so he doesn’t know if the exchange meant as much to him as it did to Kepner. He realized, after all, that coining him wasn’t going to make things better, but he hoped in some way to tell the Soldier he’d done good. It also showed this: When it comes to coining, it is sometimes just as meaningful to give as it is to receive.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
Hey, Soldier, dig into your pocket. Check your wallet. Scrounge around in your bag. You do have a coin on you, don’t you? You better. You never know when you might get challenged.
Once you’ve earned a coin, it’s your responsibility to always keep one with you. To carry a coin is to uphold a charming military tradition, to show your membership in an exclusive club, to prove your mettle as a Soldier. And there’s also this: Having one might win you a free beer.
Coins are a simple way of getting (and giving) credit for a job well done. The beauty of the custom is that it can be used to recognize great work anytime, anywhere. Coining is very often a spur-of-the-moment thing. There is no approval process or paperwork involved. No higher-ups have to rubber-stamp it.
Army National Guard Soldiers told me they've been coined for actions as profound as serving in combat and as simple as saluting an officer. They’ve received them from NCOs with whom they work on a regular basis and from adjutant generals they’ve never met. They’ve received them in formal ceremonies, in simple handshakes (which is the most common way) and even in the mail, accompanied by handwritten letters from generals. Those are especially cool … though it can be scary getting mail from a general if you don’t know there’s a coin in there. Before you open it, you’re forgiven for thinking, Oh, no. What did I do?
“It’s a time-honored tradition,” says Missouri Army National Guard Command Sergeant Major John Ites of the Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, GA. “The biggest thing about it is recognizing excellence. It’s neat to be able to walk up to somebody who has done a great job and present them with a token of your appreciation.”
Ites always has coins to distribute, and he carries them in a pocket on his right shoulder. His coins double as bottle openers—“for those over 21,” he says with a smile.
Ites’ coin was designed by the Warrior Training Center’s previous command sergeant major. One side is emblazoned with the Ranger and Airborne tabs at the top and “Army National Guard Warrior Training Center” at the bottom. The other side features an oak leaf cluster, the command sergeant major patch, four insignia and the words, “When the will is strong, everything is easy,” a quote from the late Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Herb Brav.
The only change Ites made after he got the job was to add numbers to each coin. He set aside the first 25 or 50 for recipients especially important to the Warrior Training Center. At the end of his interview about coining, he coined me. It was numbered 180.
Throughout his career, Ites has received 45 or 50 coins. The one that means the most to him came for his work in gender integration at the Warrior Training Center. That was a task with many potential pitfalls, yet Ranger instructors navigated it with grace. “It was a big deal for the Army, and our instructors initiated it flawlessly,” he says. “We have the most professional instructors in the Army. They’re the best of the best.”
Ites keeps the coins he’s been given on a rack in his home, a common but by no means universal way of displaying them. Desk drawers, dressers, moving boxes—Soldiers store their coin collections in every way you can think of. And in some you can’t: One Soldier is said to keep a challenge coin taped to his ID. Even that makes some sense.
Coins are also called “challenge coins,” and a drinking game has grown up around them. If a group of Soldiers is out drinking beer together, one of them will pull out a coin and plunk it on the table. The “rules” (if they can be called that) vary, but generally speaking, if nobody has a coin from a higher-ranking person, somebody has to buy the challenger a beer. If somebody beats it, the Soldier who “lost” has to buy a round for everybody.
Virtually every Soldier we interviewed instantly cited the highest-ranking coin they had, no matter how many they owned. “Getting a coin is a bragging-rights thing with your buddies, especially if you get an impactful one in front of people,” says Wisconsin Army National Guard Staff Sergeant William Kocken, detachment readiness NCO with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2/127th Infantry Division.
Kocken displays most of his coins on his desk at headquarters. It’s no coincidence that the ones that came from the highest-ranking officers are placed in such a way as to be most visible to people walking by. It’s also worth noting that none of the Soldiers we interviewed picked as their favorite coin the one that came from the highest-ranking officer. Their favorites always held deep meanings—and Kocken is no exception.
He keeps his most treasured coins at home on his nightstand. The one that means the most to him came for his first deployment, to Iraq in 2005–2006 with B Company, 2/127th. The Soldiers of B Company were called “Black Sheep,” and that’s noted on the coin both in words and image. “That was my first real accomplishment in the military,” he says.
Kocken received the coin during a formal ceremony. The entire battalion walked across the stage to shake hands with the company commander and got coined in the process. “You kind of act cool and don’t look at it, because that’s who we are,” Kocken says. “But as soon as you walk offstage and look at it, you’re like, Wow.”
Most Soldiers remember the first time they got coined because getting a coin is a rite of passage. The act of coining allows Soldiers to form deeper connections with each other. When someone slaps a challenge coin on the table, stories start flying back and forth. There’s also a sense of tradition, with older Soldiers teaching younger troops about why coins are a part of life in the Guard.
Wisconsin Army National Guard Captain Nick Plocar was a young private first class when he received his first coin, which happens to be his favorite. A chief warrant officer 2 slipped it to him in a handshake after Plocar graduated with honors from Advanced Individual Training as a paralegal. Plocar didn’t know what was going on until the chief explained coining to him.
“It was, ‘Hey, you are part of our team now, and we want you to carry this with you wherever you go,’ ” Plocar says. “He said, ‘You have to have it with you whenever you’re at a paralegal function. If you don’t, you have to buy beers for everybody.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be sure I have it on me.’ ”
Since then, Plocar has been given roughly two dozen coins, which he keeps on his dresser. He likes them for their unique designs and the history that inspired those designs. And the bigger the coin, the better. “I like them as big as dinner plates,” he says. “They come in all shapes and sizes. I have some that are designed in a flag shape. Some are little circles. Some are bottle openers.”
Plocar’s highest-ranking coin comes from a four-star general. While he’s never plopped it onto a table to challenge anybody, he has used it—successfully—when other Soldiers have thrown down their coins.
Plocar no longer owns that first coin from the chief, and the reason why explains what makes that coin his favorite. Tradition holds that when a Soldier becomes an officer, he or she gives a coin to their first salute. Officers sometimes buy silver coins for that occasion, but Plocar wanted something more meaningful than that because he chose his grandfather as his first salute. Instead of a silver coin, he gave his grandfather the first coin he ever received. “He absolutely loved it,” he says.
Len Kondratiuk is the director of historical services for the Massachusetts National Guard. Before he took that job, he was chief historian for the National Guard for 18 years, retiring as a colonel. If anyone would know the origins of coining, it would be him. But even he can’t identify exactly where or when the practice started. Its true origins may lie in ancient Rome, where coins were struck to commemorate military legions, battles and victories. Where today’s Citizen-Soldiers are concerned, Kondratiuk says the tradition dates to the early 1980s and started in the Army before broadening out to the Guard. (Other branches use them, too.)
“The first one I got was in 1984,” Kondratiuk says. “It was just brass. There was no color or anything. As the years went on, they started having some color, three or four colors at the most. Now the ones you see are crazy. Some of them are huge. I’ve got one in the shape of a cross cannon with the head of a Native American superimposed on it, which comes from the 101st Field Artillery Regiment [Massachusetts Army National Guard]. That’s their distinctive insignia.”
While the origin of coining is unclear, the reason for its ongoing popularity is obvious. William Boehm, a historian with the National Guard Bureau, says coins represent, among other things, inclusion. “If a Soldier does well, they are indoctrinated into a unit, working through the ranks, earning the respect of peers once these accomplishments become clear to the majority of the group,” he says. “Awarding a coin, or any other token, is a viable way to certify inclusion as a part of that group. The ceremony formalizes the professional recognition.”
And despite the obscure history of the tradition, getting coined often comes with a history lesson. Minnesota Army National Guard Major General Neal Loidolt, commander of the 34th Infantry Division (“Red Bull”), takes coining seriously.
“I always take the time to show the Soldier the coin first and remind them that on one side is a red bull on a Mexican olla [a clay cooking pot]. On the other side is a list of the battles and campaigns the division has fought in,” says Loidolt. “I tell them that this division served the most consecutive days in combat in WWII, and the most consecutive days in combat for a brigade combat team in Iraq. The award of a coin from a division with this storied a history is indeed an honor, and they are now members of a rare group of Soldiers to have earned the coin.”
Upon receiving a coin from Loidolt, a Soldier once asked him about the 34th’s WWII history … and almost instantly appeared to lose interest in the answer. Says Loidolt: “When I went to retrieve the coin from his hand to show him, he may have suspected that I would keep it because he immediately shoved it in his pocket and said he no longer needed the explanation.”
Rest assured, Soldier. There are no take-backs in coining.
Whether large or small, simple or ornate, every challenge coin stands for something meaningful. For those tasked with designing a coin, careful consideration goes into choosing its symbols and words—and getting them just right results in a medallion that’s every bit as rewarding to give as to get.
Command Sergeant Major of the Army National Guard Christopher Kepner says he “wanted a design that represented the organization our Soldiers serve in—that was about the esprit de corps and the history of the organization.” Here, he breaks down the elements he used when creating his coin.
Fiscal and ethical guidelines for purchasing challenge coins using appropriated funds are outlined in DA Memo 600-70.
THREE COINING MEMORIES
Coin of: GEN (Ret.) Peter Chiarelli, 32nd vice chief of staff of the Army
Given to: A member of Chiarelli’s transportation detail during a 2009 National Guard Association conference
“I opened his door and saluted as he exited the vehicle. Graciously, he returned my salute and shook my hand in the usual coin delivery fashion. He certainly didn’t have to do it, and I appreciated he took the time.”
Coin of: The late COL Van T. Barfoot, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in WWII
Given to: A reporter who interviewed him weeks before his death in 2012
“This is one of the most cherished and prized pieces of military memorabilia I have.”
Coin of: GEN (Ret.) Ray Odierno, former commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq
Given to: A Black Hawk pilot who, in 2009, flew the general and his staff throughout the northern half of Iraq
“For me, the significance of the coin comes less from the mission itself and more from the fact that it represents our status as the rulers of utility aviation in north Iraq. That feels pretty special.”